Having an Old friend for Dinner: The Cultural Legacy of ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ (1991)

Posted by Dr Sorcha Ni Fhlainn on February 27, 2011 in Dr Sorcha Ni Fhlainn, Guest Blog tagged with , , , , , , , ,

With the Oscars this weekend, I was reminded that The Silence of the Lambs is now in its 20th year. Amazingly enough (to me, at least), I have students in my class who have not yet read or experienced Thomas Harris’s  1988 novel or Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film adaptation, reminding me that the cultural importance of this film needs to be cultivated to pass on to a new generation of gothic/horror readers and viewers.

The Silence of the Lambs was released twenty years ago this month, amidst the first Gulf War, on February 14th, 1991. It would be another thirteen months before it won the top five Oscar statuettes in March 1992 for Best Film (Ronald M. Bozman, Edward Saxon, Kenneth Utt, producers), Best Direction (Jonathan Demme), Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Actress (Jodie Foster), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ted Tally).   Furthering the film’s cultural caché,  The Silence of the Lambs is third film in Oscar history to have won  all five major Oscar categories, rivaled only by It Happened One Night (1934) and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).

The film endures in many ‘scariest films’ polls and was voted 4th ‘scariest film’ of all time by Entertainment Weekly and Hopkins was voted number one in the American Film Institute’s Best Screen Villains category. I can distinctly recall the film’s cultural effect in the early 90s, and particularly it being advertised and spoken of as ‘the scariest film ever made’ (a title that was most likely later returned to William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973)) – a ‘dare you see it’ film with horrific violence and that cultural no-no, cannibalism!

The Silence of the Lambs (Trailer)

For me, The Silence of the Lambs is one of those rare treats – a gothic/horror/psychological thriller that does not shy away from the violence and visceral representation of serial killing. While certainly being imaginative by condensing three specific methodologies of  notorious American serial killers into one character, Buffalo Bill, who imprisons, skins and murders women (Ed Gein was known to have flayed women and made objects from their skins; Ted Bundy frequently masqueraded as an injured man to gain trust from victims; and Gary M. Heidnik who imprisoned women in a makeshift hole/well in his basement). Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), the film’s hunted serial killer, is a myriad of many cultural preoccupations of the period – recall that the film was picketed at the 1992 Academy Awards and Golden Globes as demonstrators believed it an anti-gay and homophobic piece, reactionary in its representation of gay and transgendered people. Yet, the film goes much deeper than this – the film went into production a year after Bundy’s execution by the state of Florida and the pronounced fascination and fear surrounding serial killers was particularly acute throughout the Reagan years in America. Furthermore, George H. Bush’s presidency, marred with self-doubt and  failed attempts of furthering Reagan’s cultural legacy of the 1980s, saw many films which relocated the monster as a product within the borders of the American psyche – like Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) (also heavily drawn from the murders of Ed Gein) what lies within, the secret self,  is far more destructive than an external/foreign threat.

What draws most of us back to Hannibal Lecter lies precisely in his onscreen gaze. While onscreen for only 17 minutes, Hopkins’s gaze draws us in, vampirically sipping from the pain and hurt of Starling’s own traumatic childhood memories, and by extension, seems to feed from our (expected) response. Hopkins’s performance relies on the vampiric gaze to penetrate through the screen, reinforced by Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography and extreme close ups, his deliberate pacing and pronunciation when delivering his (now famous and endlessly quoted) lines.

Fava Beans and a Nice Chianti

Interestingly, despite the accolades, the cultural assimilation of Dr. Lecter, and recognition by the Academy, last year’s Oscars contained a major blunder – the Academy paid homage to our beloved horror genre, but decided to remove The Silence of the Lambs from its list as a horror film (though thankfully the film featured in the horror film clips in the homage, proving that scriptwriters did not believe that a film containing a cannibal, a skin-flaying serial killer and a final girl, and plotted as a fairytale quest, is a gothic/horror film).  (A poor copy of it can be found here: Horror Tribute at 82nd Academy Awards ) My HD copy is currently on You Tube here:

In the Academy’s estimation, it has been 38  long years since a horror film has been awarded the Best Picture Award, citing The Exorcist (1973) as its last ‘horror’ recipient, awarded in 1974. This seems to be a deliberate oversight as Billy Crystal’s opening to the 64th Academy Awards references the film (and foreshadows the Oscar success of the film that night (March 25th 1992), tapping into the cultural currency of the film that lasts to this day). Billy Crystal\’s Opening to the 64th Academy Awards.

One wonders though if the term horror is still too unpalatable for some; indeed, the very same debate may be held around Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) should its Oscar campaign be successful. Only time will tell.

While The Silence of the Lambs is undoubtedly a hybrid film, comprising of gothic/horror and psychological thriller elements, by bestowing it with that slippery term ‘psychological thriller’ seems to publicly legitimize the horrific elements without having to acknowledge that a horror film (culturally ‘low brow’) is capable of winning the most  prestigious set of awards (culturally ‘high brow’ and celebrated).

Politics aside,  the film proves to have a significant cultural afterlife in the many animated references to Lecter and Buffalo Bill (see clips below of The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy) not to mention Kevin Smith’s Clerks II in which Jason Mewes of ‘Jay and Silent Bob’ reenacts Buffalo Bill’s transformation sequence to the familiar music of Q Lazzarus’s “Goodbye Horses”. Clerks II Jay\’s Buffalo Bill Dance


Of course, the afterlife of the film has also been facilitated with two sequels Hannibal (2001) and Hannibal Rising (2007) – the former being the far better of the two and the last film starring Anthony Hopkins as Lecter, reprising the role with some flamboyant relish.

Best of all though, Hopkins’s recent role as a priest performing exorcisms in The Rite (2011) garnered a fond moniker in the film press this week, ensuring not only that his role as Lecter will be a lasting legacy for the actor’s career but that the fondness for Hannibal is secure in cultural memory. The moniker? …  Hannibal Rector!

The Rite (2011) Trailer

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